- Bill Finley
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For the last 30 years or so the racing landscape hasn't changed that much. The tracks that mattered were in Southern California, New York and Kentucky and, for a few months in the winter, Florida. Monmouth wasn't too far behind. Neither were Arlington and a few other places. The rest just weren't that significant.
But recent developments show how much the sport has changed and will continue to change. The gulf between the haves (slot tracks) and the have-nots (non-slots tracks) has never been bigger and 2012 figures to be the year where the have-nots get blown out of the water.
On January 1, a huge purse increase will kick in at Aqueduct. The money will come from the profits at the Aqueduct casino, which, after 10 years of political fumbling and malfeasance, finally came to fruition. The winter at the Big A is hardly known as a racing paradise, but the Ozone Park oval will offer the biggest pots in the country.
It used to be that Monmouth Park, and not Philadelphia Park, had the best racing in the Mid-Atlantic area. No more.
The nine races in the Aqueduct condition book for Jan. 1 total $445,000 and include a $60,000 maiden special weight race and a $51,000 starter allowance. NYRA had already plucked some of the slots money into the stakes schedule, which now includes a $400,000 Gotham.
And NYRA has been conservative when it comes to calculating its share of the slots loot. Likely, the same maiden race that is now $60,000 will be $70,000 or more some time soon.
About 100 miles to the south, the casino at Philadelphia Park continues to pump huge amounts of cash into purses. November was the first time in history that more money was bet at the casinos in Pennsylvania than those in reeling Atlantic City, a trend that figures to continue. Earlier this month, the list of graded stakes for 2012 was released and no track fared better than Philly did. The Cotillion was awarded Grade 1 status, a first for a Pennsylvania racetrack. It was one of four Philly stakes to receive an upgrade.
It used to be that Monmouth Park, and not Philadelphia Park, had the best racing in the Mid-Atlantic area. No more. In 2012, the non-slots track Monmouth figures to have one of the worst racing products in the country.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie is pro-Atlantic City and anti-racing and has demanded that the state's racetracks get by without slots or any other subsidies. That was bad enough, but then New Jersey horsemen foolishly pushed for 141 days of racing in 2012 and won out. But to get that much racing they had to agree to huge purse cuts. They say they are going to race for $150,000 to $175,000 a day at Monmouth, but that seems wildly optimistic. Bettors are not going to want any part of the cheapened Monmouth product, so handle is going to fall precipitously and that could mean purses on the Beulah Park, Suffolk Downs and Finger Lakes level.
These are just the initial stages of change.
The Kentucky racing industry should be worried sick over what's going on in New York. With slots nowhere on the horizon in Kentucky, they are struggling to maintain the status quo when it comes to purses. The same maiden race that now goes for $60,000 in New York is run for $46,000 at Churchill Downs. How long will top Kentucky stables stick it out there when they can run for a lot more money in New York? How many Kentucky breeding farms will focus more and more of their efforts on New York while cutting back on their Kentucky operations?
Virtually the same thing can be said for California, where the 2-year-old maiden special weight races at Hollywood Park are currently worth $45,000. How soon before Bob Baffert, John Sadler, Jerry Hollendorfer, Doug O'Neill et. al. conclude they can no longer afford not to race regularly in New York?
Monmouth has always had some good stables. But can a Kelly Breen justify racing in New Jersey when the purses will be four times as big at Belmont and three times as big at Philly? Will Todd Pletcher still send a string to the Jersey Shore? That seems unlikely.
As the racing products continue to decline at the have-not tracks the betting handle will keep going down, meaning even smaller purses, worse racing and more handle declines. Once the snowball starts rolling there's no way to stop it.
The level playing field is long gone and it's never coming back.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.